Eritrea native Welday Gezehen is sharing the cuisine of his homeland in his new restaurant, Queen Sheba Eritrean Restaurant.
The restaurant quietly opened on January 17, east of Tucson Medical Center at 5553 E. Grant Rd.
Gezehan and his family left the northeast African country Eritrea as refugees in 2006 and lived in neighboring country Ethiopia for three years before moving to the U.S.
"I started from zero," Gezehan said. "When you move as a family, it's very difficult."
Gezehan's life in Tucson began with washing dishes at Omni Tucson National Resort for four years. He then served as an assistant manager at Ethiopian restaurant Zemams Too! for three years, before becoming a driver for Blackjack Pizza. Wanting a change in life for his family, Gezehan decided to open his own restaurant.
While Queen Sheba is a Biblical and Quranic figure, the restaurant name is also a tribute to Gezehan's wife Negesti Gebremichael and his niece.
"When you translate Negesti [from Tigrinya], it means queen," Gezehan said. "She is queen for me. Saba [another name for Sheba] means my brother's daughter. She took great care of my mother. I never forget from my heart."
As the first Eritrean restaurant in Tucson, Gezehan wants customers to understand the differences and similarities to Ethiopian cuisine.
"Ethiopia and Eritrea are separate countries, but the recipes are pretty much the same," Gezehen said. "Both cuisines make heavy use of berbere, a blend of peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, fenugreek, and other spices. Both cuisines also feature injera, a spongy pancake-like sourdough-risen flatbread torn with your hands and used to scoop up the stews."
While Eritrea's coastal location means it has more seafood than Ethiopia, Queen Sheba doesn't have seafood on the menu — for now. Eritrea also once served as an Italian colony, hence Queen Sheba's one Spaghetti with Beef & Sauce dish.
Open the doors to the restaurant and the fragrance of berbere wafts through immediately. The south-facing windows bring in abundant sunlight for the white tables and white walls lined with Eritrean art. One television mounted in the corner plays Eritrean music videos.
Customers who have dined at at Zemam's and Cafe Desta will feel right at home with the variety of spiced stews. The fragrant spices immediately whet the appetite, while the soft and tangy injera balances the richness of the stews.
"We want to be always happy, always bright, always home," Gezehan said. "Doesn't matter where you're from, the doors are open for everyone."
Queen Sheba Eritrean Restaurant is located at 5553 E. Grant Rd. Operating hours are noon - 9 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call (520) 336-9736 or visit queenshebatucson.com.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he is best known locally for his work for Tucson Foodie, his work has also appeared in publications such as Bon...